Film Review: Bridge of Spies

Written by Aaron Sarnecky

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Bridge of Spies Plot Summary:

On request of the U.S. government, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) represents Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), putting his very reputation, and possibly his family, in danger. After the Soviet Union captures Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), pilot of an American U-2 spy plane, Donovan goes to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

Let me get it out of the way and say that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are both American treasures. Given their previous work, I don’t think many would dispute this statement. Spielberg, in particular, is virtually a god in Hollywood; he directed the quintessential summer blockbuster, Jaws, as well as other masterpieces, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park.  And let us not forget all the movies and television he’s produced (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Animaniacs, Band of Brothers, etc).

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It should be noted though that his prestige is not as great as it was in the ‘80s or ‘90s. It started to dip in the mid-to-late 2000s, when superhero movies started to hit their stride, and when he made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He’s still highly respected for the past, but there’s a growing number of non-believers when it comes to the present. Perhaps he teamed up with his friend Tom Hanks again to remind the world of the magic of yesterday. It also certainly helps that the Coen brothers co-wrote Bridge of Spies.

In my opinion, Spielberg has succeeded, to a certain degree. Casting Tom Hanks as the movie’s lead just feels so natural, like slipping on a glove. That alone makes the character, James B. Donovan, likable. However, it’s his integrity that really makes him a good protagonist. I don’t want to give away everything, because that would take away from the film, but know that Donovan is a man of the law and the Constitution who does not shy away from his convictions. It’s this stubbornness that is both his greatest weakness, putting him in difficult situations, and his greatest strength.

Interestingly, Bridge of Spies serves as a counterpoint and companion piece to Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which President Lincoln worries less about the Constitution and more about what he believes is right for the country. Of course, this was during the crisis of the Civil War. It appears that Spielberg wants us to assess the times we live in before we jump to conclusions. It applies to our world today as much as it does to the Cold War. Given Spielberg’s past focus on government surveillance, mass hysteria, and paranoia following 9/11, Bridge of Spies fits into his 21st century filmography quite nicely. That being said, it’s a film that can survive as more than simply an allegory.

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The film also has a nice nuance in Donovan’s friendship with Abel. Donovan does realize that Abel is probably a spy, but just because he’s a spy does not mean he’s evil. He’s not a mass murderer like Stalin, who the Soviets denounced when he died; he gathers intelligence. This makes sense, considering that President Eisenhower and Premier Khrushchev were hoping to thaw the Cold War before the U-2 incident threw a wrench in that plan.

I do have a few issues with this movie, though they’re not so detrimental that they ruin it. My biggest complaint is that the first half, in which Donovan defends Abel, is more interesting than the second half, when the actual prisoner swap on the “Bridge of Spies” happens. The domestic opposition Donovan faces brings up more intriguing questions, though the negotiations in East Berlin do eventually culminate in a satisfying resolution. Perhaps it’s because we already know that Francis Gary Powers does indeed come home, even if the movie does understandably play a little loose with the exact dates, seemingly squeezing five years into three. This prior knowledge makes the movie more of a straight drama than the thriller the commercials and trailers portray it as. The film doesn’t contain the spectacle Spielberg is known for, aside from the scene in which the Soviets shoot down the U-2. Also, John Williams, Spielberg’s typical music man and the world’s greatest living composer, is sadly absent, though Thomas Newman fills his role competently.

Despite the film being dry at times, Spielberg proves that he’s still a director to watch. It won’t likely get as much attention from moviegoers as his previous work, but I have a feeling the Academy will notice it (it ironically loves Spielberg for his blockbusters but hates today’s Spielberg-influenced hits). Though it’s admittedly not the 5-star cinema we know Spielberg for, Bridge of Spies is a film we can use to evaluate our principles, one that we should watch now and decades from now. I think that’s at least worth a nomination, don’t you?

Rating: 8 Out Of 10 (Great)

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